The Angle

2017 NPSL North Instant Replay

by on 8 March 2018

While a “review” column should probably be posted at the end of a season, the excitement of the upcoming 2018 NPSL North season serves as a perfect time to review some incidents from last year. Consider this an opportunity to whet your appetite for 2018 on some of the more controversial moments from the 2017 NPSL North season…sort of like an MLS Instant Replay, but without the cool graphics or Simon Borg screaming.

A few qualifiers before we start. This is a strictly objective look at a few selected incidents from the 2017 NPSL season that I managed to capture via streams. I am going to review these with a completely neutral viewpoint, and also within the scope of the Laws of the Game. I fully recognize that people with biased viewpoints will insist that this call was utterly wrong, that certain things do not make sense, and that the Laws are messed up. My answer to those arguments is (a) please check your bias and (b) soccer is not the only sport where rules that are supposed to make things simple, in fact, make them confusing or complicated. Sorry.

Also, any criticisms of referees from these clips are not intended to undermine the official. Rather, this is an opportunity to learn. Understand, these clips will show particularly complicated or rare situations. Anyone who watched the audio feed of Jon Moss’ discussion with his assistant from the Liverpool vs. Tottenham game from February should know that even some referees at the top levels of the game get utterly flummoxed (rightly or wrongly) when placed in a pressure-cooker. The NPSL is probably a good 7-9 levels below that, and, if Jon freakin’ Moss can get confused about what his AR is trying to explain to him, well, do not assume that the average NPSL referee will always be calm and graceful under fire. To paraphrase Bruce from “Finding Nemo” referees are friends not food.

For starters, we have a bit of a doozy from Minneapolis City’s home meeting with Sioux Falls…

Thanks to the vantage point of the camera, it is pretty clear what happened here: the shot strikes the wheel that is attached to the goal on the inside of the far post. Interestingly, the referee crew noted at a later clinic that they were aware of the wheel and that it could cause problems, a point of knowledge that I will address momentarily. But first, let us consider if this should be a goal.

Law 1 defines the goal as “two vertical posts…and a crossbar.” It allows for a net to be attached to the goal. That is it.

Law 5 notes that if the ball is entering the goal, and the interference does not prevent a defensive player from playing the ball, the goal is awarded. This change was made several years ago to allow for common sense to be applied.

So how does that apply here? Well, first, the wheel is not part of what defines the goal, so it is an outside agent. In this case, the ball would have clearly entered the goal but for the contact with the outside agent. Law 5 allows the referee to utilize common sense and award the goal.

The referee crew made a pair of errors here. First, the crew should do everything in their power to try to eliminate this potential interference prior to the match. Alas, many goals like this model do not allow for easy removal of the wheel, but the crew should still ask the home team to try to remedy the situation. Odds are this could not be fixed in a timely manner, so the referee puts it in the game report and lets the NPSL decide if Minneapolis City/Augsburg needs to rectify this for future games.

Having said that, the crew then needs to be acutely aware that this wheel could interfere, either on a ball played from outside or inside the goal. This bounce is not natural… the only way that ball bounces out of the goal like that is if it hits the wheel. We can see the referee look at his AR and point, as if to ask, “Did it cross the line?” With a proper pregame inspection and awareness, we would know the only way the ball could have jumped like this is by striking that wheel, and that the wheel kept the ball from entering the goal. Allowing for the recent institution of common sense to outside interference, City should have been given a goal on this play.

However, rather than simply blaming the officials for a mistake here, there is another culprit: Minneapolis City and Augsburg College. I understand that goals with wheels are necessary for multi-use facilities like Augsburg. You cannot play pointy-ball and have your receivers flying head long into implements around the field (though…arena football…never mind, I digress). But, there are plenty of goal designs with wheels that allow for quick and easy wheel detachment so they are no longer present. An investment into a professional-style goal stanchion with post holes could also allow for removal. There are pitches in Britain that are used for both soccer and rugby. During soccer matches the goals are not the kind with wheels. So if you are serious about not having preventable, crazy law interpretations flying around in your matches…you know, it is possible.

Next up, we have the DOGSO red card from the Minneapolis City-VSLT match held at Augsburg last year…

The decision here is 100 percent correct. The VSLT defender trips the City attacker outside the penalty area, with only the goalkeeper to beat. Law 12 dictates this has to be a red card. The attacker is in clean on goal, is close enough to the goal to make the scoring opportunity legitimate, and close enough to the ball to play it. Fouls that deny goal-scoring opportunities outside the penalty area must result in a red card.

The lessons from this particular clip are in the referee’s mechanics of showing the red card, which he takes a bit too long to do. There absolutely is merit to taking your time on a send-off decision, making sure you get the right player, and making sure you make the right decision. But, in this scenario, the decision is pretty straightforward. At the moment of the foul, the next closest field defender is 10 yards behind the play. If it is a foul, it has got to be DOGSO.

By the time the referee shows the card (22 seconds after the foul), he has been accosted by several City players telling him what he has to do, along with a mass of VSLT players who have arrived hoping to sow confusion by creating a mass of players milling about. When he shows the red card, he is met with argument from the VSLT teammates who think the City players have lobbied successfully for harsher punishment. If this red card comes out within 5-7 seconds after the whistle, when it is still clear that the defender was the last field defender present, much of the arguing and lobbying likely never happens, or is muted.

To be equally critical of the players here, considering the number of times a player has successfully lobbied for decreased or cancelled punishment in the history of the game, take your pill and swallow it. This is about as straightforward a red card as it comes. Honestly, I know the VSLT players are hoping to confuse the referee into a downgrade or mistaken identity, but, once the card is out, just let it go. It takes one minute 37 seconds to get this ball back in play after the card is shown. The goalkeeper approaches and barks at the referee, VSLT #3 is sticking his finger in the referee’s face…frankly, they are lucky the referee showed composure and did not caution another player or two for dissent for a completely non-controversial red card.

Our last situation is actually a two-for-one, involving what was a spirited home-and-home set of battles between Med City and Duluth FC. We have a nice little mass confrontation in the 31st minute of their first meeting in Duluth…

The referee calls a foul, but players from both teams gradually make a bigger deal over small affronts until things boil over. There is some pushing, then #5 Duluth shoves the Med City player over. Med City’s #12 charges in to tell #5 what he thinks of him. Then #11 Duluth gives him a shove.To top it all off, #12 Med City rounds on #11 and throws a punch that lands to the face of #11. Oops.

The referee really could not stop this from escalating. It is a series of small affronts that grow gradually more violent until eventually #12 for Med City decides to throw a punch. My own critique of the official is that he takes too long to realize he is in a mass confrontation and stays in the middle of it. He eventually recognizes what is happening and backs out, but general instruction for referees in these situations is to back 5-7 yards away from the confrontation and wait for the players to sort it out. From this removed position you can catch more misconduct and make sure you even out the punishment.

In the end, #5 Duluth is cautioned for throwing the most gasoline on this fire and #12 Med City is sent off for violent conduct. Both of these are deserved punishments. A few online interviews and articles after the match proclaimed befuddlement at the send-off, but provocative contact above the shoulders during a dead ball is a mandatory red card (see Kaka for Orlando City last year, in spite of my own misgivings about that one). For whatever misgivings anyone might have about the Duluth players’ roles in this scrum, you start throwing your arms around above neck level, make contact, and happen to do that directly in front of the referee…you get what you deserve, regardless of who started it.

I would argue that Duluth #11 should have also been cautioned. Instead of backing away when his teammate shoved the Med City player to the ground, he re-engaged. Two yellows to Duluth and a red to Med City would have been a more even outcome. Yes, Med City played short for 60 minutes and this result does not send any Duluth players off, but no Duluth players did anything worthy of a sending-off. Pushing people is not violent conduct, and justifying a send-off because the first Med City player fell down…well, if you think anytime a soccer player gets pushed and falls to the ground it should be a red card, you do not know soccer players very well.

These two teams met late in the season with the league title on the line in Rochester. Early in the second half we have this incident…

This starts with a bad tackle by Med City’s #14. The video is not great, but he has no play on this ball and kicks out at Duluth’s #10, sweeping his feet out from under him. Duluth’s #10 pops up and shoves #14, who goes to the ground, causing, of course, histrionics from the play-by-play man and a roar from the crowd. Duluth’s #10 storms away angrily, Med City’s #14 gets up, chases him down, and shoves him in the back.

Ultimately, the referee cautions both players. For all of the agitation from the announcing booth, this is the correct decision here. Nobody did anything overly violent. Med City’s #14 committed a reckless foul worthy of a yellow card. Duluth’s #10 retaliated during the dead ball, but the push was to the shoulders, not above, so this is simply unsporting behavior defined as game disrepute. Med City’s #14 went down to ground, a bit of play-acting designed to make the push look worse than it was, then he gets up, chases down Duluth’s #10, and commits more game disrepute by shoving him.

The referee certainly had options, but, unlike the first match incident, there is nothing here that crosses a line requiring uneven punishment. One could argue the tackle was worthy of a caution AND #14’s retaliation to the retaliation is also worthy of a caution, but #14’s retaliatory push is not that violent. If we issue two cautions and a send-off to #14, we probably need to send off #10 to even things out. Giving #10 a red card for his shove is stretching the definition of violent conduct. A yellow card to each is a fair result here.

The criticism we have of the referee here is the lack of urgency in responding to the initial tackle by #14. That is a pretty nasty swipe. The foul is called but, if you watch the referee’s body language, he does not respond with the kind of urgency – sprinting to the spot of the foul, a hard long whistle, maybe even pulling the yellow card out of his pocket – that would prevent this from escalating. His lack of urgency suggests that he does not appreciate how nasty that tackle was.

A long time ago a local high school coach and I were discussing misconduct in soccer matches and he said something that I still remember to this day: when the referee fails to protect the players in a match, the players will take it upon themselves to do so. That is pretty much what happens here. Yes, a foul was called, but this is more than a foul. Maybe the referee can get away without having to book #14 if he is Johnny-on-the-spot, pulls #14 aside, and lectures him. But all of the retaliatory acts in this incident occur indirectly as a consequence of that lack of recognition.

Refocusing on the players here, #14 should feel fortunate he somehow got out of this with just a caution and also managed to get #10 booked. He might have gotten out of it without a card had he not decided to go push #14 back. And, as for #10, while I understand his frustration, immediate retaliation almost always results in a booking. Give the referee a chance and maybe a verbal appeal for something more than just a foul here.

(And if he does not book this, wait for a corner kick or throw-in and step on #14’s foot when nobody is noticing. But hey, you did not hear a referee tell you to do that. And if you get caught doing that, well, accept that punishment too.)

The first year of the NPSL North has certainly created some healthy rivalries and a bit of banter between the clubs. I would highly encourage folks to get out and see some games this year. They are affordable matches played a higher level than most other summer soccer in Minnesota (MNUFC excepted). Players genuinely care about the results. Match environments are great for spectators. And you might even see something crazy.

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